Yesterday I attended the Thanksgiving Service of an aged family friend, having been invited to take part by giving a reading of my choice. The news of her death had prompted in me a natural sadness and a genuine response that I would be honoured to do as asked.
What scripture passage or poem should I propose to read?
The fact that I am non-religious did not affect my thought processes. I didn’t know for sure, but I suspected that the deceased had been a believer, as many in the congregation would be. I didn’t want to let them down but, at the same time, I didn’t want to perform something exceptionally cloying, sentimental or clichéd if I could avoid it.
Having scanned my memory bank for ideas over a coffee – an exercise that didn’t take long – I began googling on the internet under headings such as ‘funerals’, ‘thanksgiving services’ and ‘eulogies’.
Eventually I came across ‘GONE FROM MY SIGHT’, a homily in which a ship passing over the horizon is used as an analogy for dying, in the context of hope of everlasting life. Not that I personally believe in everlasting life, of course … but I trust you can see where I was coming from in the context of a service designed to celebrate someone’s life now ended.
It turned out that there are several sources claimed for the origination of this piece, one of them a novel by Victor Hugo.
However, the author now generally accepted to have written it – whether as prose or as a poem, the form in which it is now regularly presented – is the American educator and clergyman Henry van Dyke (1852-1933).
Here it is:
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
And that is dying…
Once I had concluded that I would not be able to coming up with anything better, I duly wrote an email to the family, with the poem attached.
I added the suggestion that – if they were considering printing the poem in the ‘Order Of Service’ – they might like to consider placing square brackets around the final line – or alternatively leaving it off altogether – because I was not going to speak it.
It seemed to me that, in a piece in which he had used a maritime metaphor to provide comfort about the prospect of life going on, by adding the final line, van Dyke had unwittingly driven a coach and horses straight through both the message and effect of his otherwise perfectly reasonable effort.
Does anyone else possess their own favourite examples of naff phrases or passages that fatally undermine what might have been a classy piece of work?
Send your nominations to me, c/o The National Rust, by 31st December and there’ll be a small New Year prize for my chosen winner.